Friday, June 29, 2012

Haute Auteur

Aging is accompanied by endless moments of change and redefinition. When I moved to San Francisco in 1972 and people asked me what I did, I responded like a born-and-bred New Yorker by giving them my job description. I soon learned that, at least in San Francisco, people were more interested in my passions, what drugs I liked, and what I did in bed.

About 15 years later I was relaxing on a beach near San Diego when I overheard some college students discussing their future plans. "Well, my parents are in their fifties now, so they probably won't be around much longer, which means I'll inherit some money and can just hang out."

I doubt they could have understood that the so-called "golden years" are not always all they're cracked up to be. Little could they have imagined the bitter truths depicted in films like 1986's Cocoon or Sari Gilman's poignant documentary, Kings Point (which will be screened during the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival).

Like many people, the computer allows me access to a world which didn't exist for my parents; a world that is far more interactive than watching network television. Computers have also made it possible for me to be my own boss for much of the past 35 years and work from home.

Several years ago a friend asked me when I planned to retire. As someone who has worked at home for nearly four decades, my first response was "And do what? Go to another room?"

As I approach my 65th birthday I have a great deal to be thankful for. After enrolling in Medicare, my monthly health insurance premiums dropped by $900. This week's Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act was equally good news. But one of the most important things for me is that I have a creative outlet which I can enjoy for as long as I remain coherent.

I never set out to be a writer but, while living in Rhode Island, a friend suggested that I try putting my thoughts down on paper. Things changed after I moved to California and was offered an opportunity to write. Although my earning capacity from working as a medical and legal transcriptionist was far greater than my potential income from writing:
  • In 1977 I began a 15-year stint writing the opera column (Tales of TessiTura) for the Bay Area Reporter.
  • In 1981 I started freelancing to  magazines.
  • Over the next decade I became a contributing editor to Amtrak Express, PEOPLExpressions (the inflight magazine for PeoplExpress Airlines), and National Editor for Opera Monthly magazine.
  • From 1999-2003 I wrote the "Transcription Trends" column in For The Record Magazine.
  • I subsequently created an on-line text entitled Dictation Therapy For Doctors.
  • Although I wasn't quite sure what I would do with a blog, In November of 2007, I launched My Cultural Landscape. I've since published more than 1,000 columns.
  • In July, 2010 I started writing for the arts section of The Huffington Post where, in addition to contributing to their monthly Haiku Reviews, I've posted nearly 200 articles.
At 65, things are better than I ever thought they would be. I spend much of my time attending theatre, opera, watching films, reading, and writing. For artists, craftsmen, writers and conductors, age poses few restrictions on their ability to express themselves. For certain other art forms, however, aging can be a huge challenge.

Some actors move into teaching, doing voiceover work, directing, and, if they are lucky, making a specialty out of character roles. Some dancers may branch out into fitness training, choreography, and other professions.

Even as their creative powers attain a depth and maturity which youth cannot offer, few can ignore the fact that their biological clocks keep ticking. Two recent productions showcased the work of mature artists who are acutely aware of their age. One is a dancer turned choreographer and teacher. The other is a famous comedian who became one of the world's most beloved filmmakers.

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For years, Joe Goode has been creating haunting introspective dance dramas about contemporary culture. Not only do his dancers speak, they challenge audiences to think about their lives and the consequences of their decisions. In the program notes for his newest piece, Goode writes:
"To make something, to build something, is not just exerting the force of your skill and intelligence upon the world. It is also a process of looking inward, of gaining new perspective, of inhabiting your life in a more deliberate way. My dance-making finally matured into something juicy and satisfying when I approached it as a survival technique. The only way I could navigate this dizzying swirl of life was to carve out some small space that felt real and honest and over which I had some modicum of control. It wasn’t so much about having 'something to say,' but more about acknowledging what frightened me and how ill equipped I was to handle things like human cruelty or bigotry or even my own sexuality.
Much of human existence seemed like a pretty precarious affair. I wanted to put forward 'real' feelings and express, even if only in a small and momentary way, the truth of what I felt about living in this fragile human state. I wasn’t trying to invent a system for art making. Quite the contrary, I was just trying to get through the night. I discovered that I was changed by the noise I had made; that by blurting out my immediate feeling I had stumbled onto a revelation. In an unfeeling world, to feel something, indeed, to craft something out of 'felt' materials, could be an act of redemption."
A moment from Joe Goode's When We Fall Apart

In When We Fall Apart, Goode seeks to compare his own aging process with the sagging realities faced by his friends. Video of the choreographer wearing a series of pathetic wigs as he narrates stories of imploded dreams and diminished horizons creates a narrative path for his dancers as they explore the idealism of youth diminished by the sadness of deteriorating relationships and the tiredness of one’s increasingly decrepit body.

The finale, in which Goode sits at a desk as a huge piece of scenery collapses around him, is a shocking testament to the inevitability that awaits each and every one of us. Goode's message is clearly articulated in his writing:
"Why would we choose to make a dance? To construct or author something that exists as a formal entity and can be shared with the public? The answer I have come up with is simple. Don’t make a dance you don’t need to make. Don’t make one that doesn’t teach you something or propel you towards some greater understanding of your world.
Don’t make a performance that you don’t need to make. Make art about where you are right now. Maybe you are in a place of indecision, or loss, or exuberance over a new relationship. Any of those places are good places to start. Go into the studio and ask what do I need to learn? What questions are up for me right now? Excavate your life. Live through your work and try to learn about living through your work. Dance as a personal essay."
A moment from Joe Goode's When We Fall Apart

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For more than 40 years, Blackglama's marketing campaign has asked the public "What Becomes A Legend Most?' In the case of Woody Allen, that's a difficult question to answer.

Having begun his career as a comedy writer and stand-up comedian, Woody Allen gained early fame in nightclubs and television. I first saw him perform onstage at the Morosco Theatre in 1967 in his comedy entitled Don't Drink The Water (which featured a wonderful performance by the great Lou Jacobi). Later that year, after filming scenes for Casino Royale, he made a special appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line?

Since then, Allen has become a comedy legend, a revered filmmaker, and an accomplished jazz clarinetist whose adoring fans treasure most of his movies. Fans and comics alike take great joy in mimicking his stutter, his hypochondriasis, and his characterization of the paranoid Jew with low (or no) self-esteem.

Recently screened at the Frameline 36 Film Festival, Ashley Christian's Petunia is an obvious homage to Woody Allen's New York-centric style of filmmaking, angst, and humor. What better way to show your devotion to all things related to Woody Allen than by getting him to appear with you in a documentary about himself?

Allen is the subject of a short film by Masha Vasyukova entitled Woody Before Allen. Vasyukova's premise is simple: Since Allen Stewart Konigsberg changed his name to Woody Allen -- and the city of Konigsberg changed its name to Kaliningrad -- what better way to honor both city and cinematic legend than to tie them together in a documentary!

To do so, Masha makes it her mission to erect a statue of Woody Allen at a cinema in Kaliningrad and travels to New York to review the designs submitted for the competition. When, at the end of the film, the statue is unveiled, it bears the following quote from her hero: "All people know the same truth, our lives consist of how we choose to distort it." Here's the trailer:

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At 76, Woody Allen could certainly afford to hang it up but, like many aging artists, he can't accept the fact that there should be any reason for him to stop making films. In recent years, some of his movies have been far better than others.

My own personal theory is that, after he reached a certain age, Woody Allen's films started to improve when he stopped appearing in them. Allen cast John Cusack as a Woody Allen type of stuttering schlemiel in 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, picked Owen Wilson to impersonate him in 2011's Midnight in Paris, and has now chosen Jesse Eisenberg as the heir apparent in his latest film.

Whereas Midnight in Paris was absolutely brilliant, To Rome With Love has the noticeable sogginess of a crock pot dish inspired by what was starting to age in its creator's artistic cupboard and refrigerator. Skillfully made, filled with many wonderful lines, it nevertheless sags under the weight of leftover plot lines that got pulled out of storage and thrown together to stretch a script out to 100 minutes.

Not only does Allen appear in To Rome With Love as an opera director who can't accept the thought of having "retired" from the profession, he has gathered a winning group of great comic actors (Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni) for his story. Perhaps the best measure of the film's weakness is how quickly it got spoofed (compare the film's trailer to its sendup from the folks at Funny or Die.

Rather than reveal Allen's best lines, let me just say that Penélope Cruz can steal any movie without even trying. While some critics are busily bemoaning the appearance of Roberto Benigni in a perfectly good subplot about what happens when the media descends on an unknown person and curses them with instant fame, I was actually more intrigued by the subplot in which Allen tries to push the shy Italian man (whose son is planning to get married to Allen's daughter) into a career he never wanted.

Using the old cliché that someone who sings well in the shower isn't really capable of singing a lead role in an operatic performance, I have to thank Allen for at least casting the role of Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo, with a genuine operatic singer (Fabio Armiliato). The grotesque faces Armiliato makes while warming up will also come as no surprise to vocal coaches. While many viewers will merely be tickled by the joke, they're lucky to get a chance to hear what an operatic tenor sounds like without amplification.

1 comment:

jfleming said...

A much enjoyed blog